Saturday, July 06, 2002

Ye Of Miscellaneous Faith

The Australian Bureau of Statistics classification of religions is a fascinating few pages. No Religion - about 15% of the population, according to last year's census - contains only 4 subgroups: Agnosticism, Atheism, Humanism and Rationalism. No Objectivists or Ayn-Randians in sight.

This is pretty unimaginative when you consider the options available for Other Religions (0.4%). Some public servant has patiently allocated unique codes to everything from Chinese Ancestor Worship to Druidism; although Australian Aboriginal Traditional Religions have all been lumped together.

It's the last chance catch-all at the bottom of the Miscellaneous Religions section that's interesting - the Religious Groups, code 6999. While the Census Bureau officially frowned on people listing 'Jedi' as their religion at the last census (see post from June 22), and threw 'Jedi' into the Religious Groups bucket, just look at some of what it explicitly includes there: The Aetherius Society (Flying Saucer Group), The Builders of the Adytum, The Inner Peace Movement.

The Australian Government recognizes The Flying Saucer Group, and not the Jedi!? May the force be with them, they know not what they do...

The Judean People's Front

Pedophile Catholics have been thankfully absent from the news lately, but there was a funny postscript to one of the last TV news stories about them, on Sydney Channel 10 as I remember. There was some story about how the Melbourne Catholic establishment had protected child molestors, dismissed victims, the usual stuff. Then the news went on to other stories, and right at the end, the announcer said something like, 'The Australian Catholic Church would like to clarify that the earlier news item about child abuse was referring to the Roman Catholic Church'.

Let us not go into the morass of almost every Christian faith believing that they alone are the true Catholic faith - the most prominent being the Church of England regarding herself as the English Catholic Church, headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and nothing to do with those oddballs in Rome.

But spare a thought for the Australian Catholic Church - not only have the Roman Catholics gone and devalues the brand, as it were, but the Australian Catholic Church is very, very obscure. I can't find them anywhere on the net, 'Australian Catholic Church' is synonymous with the 'Roman Catholic Church in Australia'. They must have a massive complex over all this - if are any members are out there, do email me and tell us about yourselves.

I know the Australian Catholic Church exists because it is listed in the Australian Bureau of Statistics list of Christian religions, and I know it is obscure because it is right as the very very bottom with the 'Other Christian' religions, way below the mainstream 'Catholic Church in Australia', right at the runt of the list with the Millenial Dawnists and the Father Divine - Peace Mission Movement.

Just shove it

Who do you think said this?
"... we want to assist in shutting down the sweatshops where these garments are made by workers who get paid very little and work in atrocious conditions."

I'll save you the suspense because you'll never guess - the speaker is one Richard Stanwix, Nike corporate security manager in Australia, on the occasion of a police raid on a suburban Sydney market that was selling fake Nike tshirts for A$7. Our tax dollars at work.

Some poor worker gets a few cents for sewing a tshirt and some guy selling off a trestle table at the markets makes a few dollars. This subverts the way things are supposed to work, which is that some poor worker gets a few cents for sewing a tshirt and Nike makes heaps of dollars. Nike know all about sweatshops, of course. A Google search for 'Nike' and 'sweatshop' turns up over 12,000 hits, not all of them the famous sweatshop email.

Saturday, June 29, 2002

Gods and Monsters

How many articles do you read about the War on Terror, and how many of them are actually saying something important and saying it well? Salman Rushdie, risking another fatwa, takes Muslims to task for being too obsessed with rote anti-Americanism to meet Western tolerance and support with any morality of their own. It's been said before, but never so well:
Some of us have been listening out for something else: the emergence of a genuine Muslim polemic against the harm the terrorists are doing to their "own people." The war against Islamist terror will only be won when Muslims around the world begin to believe that fanaticism is a greater evil than that which they believe the United States to embody -- an evil, moreover, more damaging to Muslims, more socially, economically and politically destructive, and possessed by the nightmare vision of the Talibanization of the planet. After nine months during which it has been repeatedly stressed that most Muslims are not terrorists, but ordinary, decent human beings, it would be good to point to the birth of an international Muslim movement against terrorism. Unfortunately no such movement has emerged, nor is there the slightest indication that it may yet do so.

Somebody Bless America

How entertaining! Mass outrage and harrumphing about the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturning a 1954 law adding the words "under God" to the pledge of allegiance.
I Pledge Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

This is recited every morning in public schools in the US (in the US, public are schools are schools for the general public, unlike British public schools) which goes some way to explaining to the rest of us why Americans visibly stiffen their backs and place their hands on their hearts at any whiff of their flag or anthem.

Much religious demagoguery and hyperbolic overreaction has ensued, and one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at the sheer inability of a majority of Americans to even comprehend that some of their fellow citizens simply do not believe in any God at all.

SOME PEOPLE ARE NOT RELIGIOUS. It's hilarious how some other people just don't get this. The WSJ counters that
"God is the generic name for the monotheistic Deity"
while a Salon author offers helpfully:
... nonmonotheistic religions believe in Gods rather than God, but, contrary to the appellate court's interpretation, they are not excluded from the Pledge's formulation, since those who believe in more than one God still believe in at least one. (They could, moreover, add their own personal "s" to the pledge without anyone noticing -– or caring.)

(I am not linking to Salon Premium articles, since unless you are a subscriber, you are not able to read them.)

So, if you are an American Hindu, pick your favourite God. and here is the Pledge of Allegiance in Hindi.

When people can for any reason no longer indulge their own personal prejudices, the standard reaction is to blame 'political correctness', and politicians have obliged by describing this decision as 'political correctness run amok'. One rejoinder:

Nor has it been commented upon that the Republic's keen sense of political correctness apparently extends to everyone except the godless. Even those of the Muslim faith are treated with more compassion than the skeptic. Fortunately for them, the Republic's sanction and promotion of religion is largely harmless. Etching "In God We Trust" on our currency is not quite the same as the Taliban butchering infidels in Afghanistan. Luckily, most atheists are highly civilized people and are able to look on the antics of their Christian brethren with a laughing eye. In fact, watching the boobs in Congress stumble over one another to be first to the podium to decry the court's decision is an amusing spectacle in itself. Obviously these politicians are simply milking this welcome opportunity to show off for their hometown church groups, a tactic that they -- I almost said pray -- that they hope will, at the end of the day, translate into a nice Election Night windfall. How many of the drunken, lascivious boors in Congress do you suppose really bend their knee at night, or mutter a prayer of thanks before dinner? I doubt you would find more than a handful.

... Originally, the Pledge, composed by socialist Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, ran: "I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." According to Baer, author of "The Pledge of Allegiance, A Centennial History, 1892-1992," the idea of "equality for all" had to be scrapped, presumably because the state superintendents of education were opposed to equality for women and minorities.

Since it was penned in August 1892, Bellamy's oath has been tampered with twice. In 1924, despite the author's protests, the National Flag Conference changed the phrase "my flag," to "the flag of the United States of America," seemingly so that godless communists could not hijack the Pledge and make it their own. And again in 1956, during the height of the Cold War, the Knights of Columbus, a usually harmless Catholic organization of grown men with swords, pressured Congress to include the phrase "under God."
With hypocrisy and bombast for all, Christopher Orlet, Salon Premium

At the moment, the US appears far from indivisible, under God or just freestanding. The matter of who, if anybody, they should be indivisible it in itself somewhat divisive:

...there are many inconvenient facts about the Pledge decision that its legions of detractors are simply ignoring. Here are some of them: Significant numbers of Americans simply do not believe in God. Other Americans may embrace a kind of spirituality that involves more than one god, or some spiritual entity entirely different from the conventional God, who does not answer to that particular name. Even some of those who do believe in God -- whether spelled with an uppercase or lowercase "G" -- may feel strongly that this belief is a matter between themselves and that God, and not something that should have anything at all to do with the U.S. government, the public schools it supports or avowals of allegiance to the Republic, the government and the flag made in those schools. ...

... If there's a political consensus in the U.S. to say, "The majority rules, and the majority believes in God, so the rest of you should just stand by quietly while we haul our God into the daily Pledge of Allegiance," then let's acknowledge that squarely, rather than pretend that no one is excluded by the choice. But anyone listening to the words of the Pledge itself -- "One nation, under God, indivisible ..." -- will sense, as I did every time I recited it in my public elementary school (at a time when you couldn't "opt out"), that in fact they prescribe a unity of belief. If you happen not to believe God exists, then you stand as an implicit violator of that unity: You aren't part of that "one nation"; you have fractured the indivisible.
God stoppers, Scott Rosenberg, Salon Premium

At least its driven the pedophile Catholics off the news pages. Some fun times ahead, I'm sure.

Saturday, June 22, 2002

May the faith be with you (not)

News from the non-believers:
  • "If we don't start, very soon, to replenish our ranks with young people, our future will be dim."

    This is not a Catholic Priest worrying aloud, but a Secular Humanist. I suspect that like minded young people today are just secular humanists, not Secular Humanists, and who can blame them? The above is from an article on the American Atheists web site investigating the thorny debate "over whether the promotion of secular humanism should involve "bashing" religion, or whether we should only focus on presenting humanism in a positive light."
    (Conclusion: bash at will.)

    If you want to know what atheism would be like if it was an organized non-religion, look no further than American Atheists. This is a movement awash with its own dogma, creeds, manifestos, a charismatic founder - Madalyn Murray O'Hair - and her sacred writings. Like the best corporate religions, it has a National Convention, a governing hierarchy, and even a board of directors.

    Perhaps it's a reaction to the ostentatious devoutness of Americans, that American Atheists are so prickly and defensive. As well as the article above - what kind of a belief system needs to depend on bashing other ideologies? - they offer this most peculiar advice on Coming Out of the [Atheist] closet.

    Relax, people, just relax. Dogma is its own downfall.

    Nonsense like all this obscures the more reasonable AA offerings, such as their objections to a Christian cross being placed at Ground Zero.

    American Atheists today charged that plans to include a Christian Cross made out of steel beams from the World Trade Center as a permanent memorial on city property would violate the separation of church and state, be insensitive to those victims who had no religious beliefs and would incredibly pay homage to religion - the prime motivating factor in the faith-based attack of Sept. 11. According to recent news reports, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation is being asked to include a "cross" made of debris discovered by a construction worker at the WTC site in the redevelopment plans for the area. The group has received over $2 billion in funds from the government to rebuilt the site of the former WTC.

    "This is an inappropriate use of taxpayer money," said Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists. "You can't take government funds to promote religion, especially sectarian religion in the form of a 'cross' or any other religious symbol."

    Johnson added that any memorial to the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks "should bring Americans together, not divide them on the basis or religion or anything else."

    "Nearly 14% of Americans reject religion," said Johnson. "Atheists and other people-of-no-faith died in the faith-based twin towers attack. They also worked to clear debris, they donate money, blood, food and other assistance. Thus a sectarian monument is an insult to them, and indeed anyone else who isn't a Christian."

  • It's generally recognized that Americans are the most publically devout of the Western nations, but if you believe the American Atheists figure, 14% of Americans are not religious at all. This would seem to put them on a par with Australia, where the 2001 census revealed that 15% of Australians explicitly described themselves as having 'No Religion', although another 10% did not even bother to answer the optional 'What religion are you' question.

    However, Australians are definitely not uptight about religion. Before the census, an email and online campaign got underway, which
    "urged locals who didn't identify with conventional religions to tell census statisticians they were adherents of the Jedi religion, whose knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Star Wars movies."
    The hope was that if there were enough takers, Jedi would have to be listed as an official religion in the next census - an urban myth, as it turns out.

    Nevertheless, the Australian Census Bureau took the threat seriously enough to publically respond to it.
    The official warning:
    ABS [Australian Bureau of Statistics] recognises that people have a wide range of belief systems. If your belief system is "Jedi" then answer as such on the census form. But if you would normally answer Anglican or Jewish or Buddhist or something else to the question "what is your religion?" and for the census you answer "Jedi" then this may impact on social services provision if enough people do the same.

    If a Jewish or Anglican person is moved to call themselves a Jedi in their census form, then I suggest they are probably not potential clients of Jewish or Anglican social services to start with.

    In the end, the Jedi were disrespectfully lumped into the 'not defined' category. Never fear. I'm sure that the Force can triumph; even from the remote planet of none-of-the-above.

Saturday, June 15, 2002


This metaphor of 'The Elephant in the Living Room' was developed by groups involved in drug and alcohol recovery to describe the phenomena of the dysfunctional family. It typically refers to situations where a problem is far too large to not be noticed, but people would rather ignore and tiptoe around it than discuss it. The Elephant can be many things - alcoholism, domestic violence, racism, infidelity, problem gambling - any problem where the comfort and status quo of silence is preferable to the pain of confrontation. In some Alchoholics Anonymous type groups, they teach that the first step to recovery is to acknowledge the elephant.

Now, the Catholic Church has an Elephant in the Sacristy. Not a pink elephant, but certainly a lavender one:

... we must be able to call the elephant by its name. The real problem facing the American Catholic church is that a great many boys have been seduced or forced into homosexual acts by certain priests; that these offenders appear to have been disproportionately represented in certain seminaries; and that their case histories open questions about sexuality that--verboten though they may have become-- demand to be reexamined.

The article charges that the elite media, in a mass exercise of political correctness resulting from fear of homophobia accusations, are driven by the "secular cultural imperative of evading the elephant".

The dominant view in the press right now--what might be called the "anything-but-the-elephant" theory--reads like this. Whatever the scandals may appear to be about--as it happens, man-boy sex--they are actually about something else. "It should be clear by now," as the New York Times put it in a classic formulation, "that this scandal is only incidentally about forcing sex on minors." Similarly, the New Republic: "We all know that the sexual abuse of minors is horrific; but somehow the bishops did not react with horror. That is what truly shocks." And the New Yorker: "The big shocker has been not so much the abuse itself--awful and heartbreaking though it is--as the coldly bureaucratic 'handling' of it by hierarchs like [Boston's Bernard] Law and the current archbishop of New York, Edward Cardinal Egan." And, for good measure, the New York Review of Books: "The current scandal is not a sex scandal."

Some writers do draw attention to the elephant--but only in order to dismiss it. Here is A.W. Richard Sipe, for example, a psychiatrist and former Benedictine monk who is as widely quoted as any other authority on the scandals: "It's not a gay problem; it's a problem of irresponsible sexual behavior and the violation of boundaries" (emphasis added here and below). Here is a Jesuit writing in the English Catholic magazine the Tablet: "The problem is not the abusing priests' homosexuality, but rather their immaturity and their abuse of power." Thereby has developed what might be called the cultural imperative of the scandal commentary--the proposition, as the president of the gay Catholic organization Dignity put it, that "Homosexuality has nothing to do with it."

It's an interesting article, with a very different point of view to the huge volume of more liberal opinion on this awful and sordid issue. If you're sick of Andrew Sullivan, definitely read it. The author analyses and debunks the common so-called 'causes' of the crisis - celibacy, institutional secrecy, sexual immaturity, and the semantic retreat behind 'ephebopilia'.

Social conservatives and traditionalists have embraced this distinction... The attraction of this approach for traditionalists seems to be that it is marginally less damaging to the reputation of the Church if its priests are seen more as preying on teenagers than on pre-adolescents. Meanwhile, Church dissidents and gay activists have seized on it for a related reason--namely, that it is marginally less damaging to the reputation of homosexual priests if it turns out that the renegades in their ranks are having problems with teenage boys, rather than engaging in "true" pedophilia. The fact that this serves as yet another example of defining deviancy down--i.e., that ephebophilia is discussed not as a horror in its own right, but as a less- bad alternative to sex with little children--has been under-discussed, to put it mildly.

Thursday, June 13, 2002

Watching by night

Catholic Bishops carry a crosier, or shepherds's staff - albeit often an elaborate, ornate and expensive-looking one - to symbolize their responsibility as successors of the Apostles, and to remind the like-minded that Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd."

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
"The Church is, accordingly, a sheepfold, the sole and necessary gateway to which is Christ. It is also the flock of which God himself foretold that he would be the shepherd, and whose sheep, even though governed by human shepherds, are unfailingly nourished and led by Christ himself, the Good Shepherd and Prince of Shepherds, who gave his life for his sheep.

Despite the popularity of 'The Shepherd and His Flock' references in the popular media, very few writers take the next step, which is to refer to the individual Catholic faithful themselves as, er, sheep. Collectively, it's a lovely metaphor; a Good Shepherd tending, sheltering, protecting all of you. Singly, it's not generally considered too complimentary to be referred to as a sheep. Walk up to someone in a pub and call them a sheep, and Catholic or not, they'll probably deck you.

According to Monty Python lore, the most dangerous of creatures is a clever sheep, and some Catholic sheep have been getting very clever indeed lately. Angry at the fact that, 'The bishops are God's shepherds, and they've let the wolves among the flock.', some sheep are in open rebellion, talking back to the Shepherds. What next - four legs good, two legs bad?

Still, if the wool fits, wear it. Otherwise endlessly opinionated Catholic Andrew Sullivan, in this week's TIME, bleats that,

When so many church leaders could not treat even the raping of children as a serious offense, how can we trust them to tell us what to believe about the more esoteric questions of contraception, or homosexuality, or divorce?

To me, it is simply beyond comprehension why any intelligent adult in this century would be prepared, let alone want, to be 'told what to believe' about their own private reproductive, sexual, or marital conduct.

(Particularly since on these specific topics, the huge majority of Western Catholics completely ignore the Church's pronouncements anyway!) upon yourself is the first step toward freedom of thought. Not that you need think yourself infallible, but that you must learn to think everyone fallible, and to content yourself with such greater or less probability as the evidence may seem to you to warrant. This renunciation of absolute certainty is, to some minds, the most difficult step towards intellectual freedom. ...

Towards facts, submission is the only rational attitude, but in the realm of ideals there is nothing to which to submit. The universe is neither hostile nor friendly; it neither favors our ideals nor refutes them. Our individual life is brief, and perhaps the whole life of mankind will be brief if measured on an astronomical scale. But that is no reason for not living as seems best to us. The things that seem to us good are none the less good for not being eternal, and we should not ask of the universe an external approval of our own ethical standards.

The free thinker's universe may seem bleak and cold to those who have been accustomed to the comfortable indoor warmth of the Christian cosmology. But to those who have grown accustomed to it, it has its own sublimity, and confers its own joys. In learning to think freely we have learnt to thrust fear out of our thoughts, and this lesson, once learnt, brings a kind of peace which is impossible to the slave of hesitant and uncertain credulity.
Bertrand Russell, The Value of Free Thought, 1944

Monday, June 10, 2002

Midnight, in the Church of Good and Evil

God moves in mysterious ways. Compare these two cases:
  1. In Milwaukee, the so-called 'victim' of Archbishop Rembert Weakland collects a US$450,000 payout. This 'victim', himself an accomplished predator, had a consensual adult relationship with the Archbishop, before subsequently blackmailing him for the money.

  2. In rural New South Wales, Australia, a disabled women whose first sexual experience at 15 was being raped and impregnated by a Catholic priest, was last month awarded A$15,000 in hush money, almost 20 years after the crime. That is 15,000 Australian dollars - a little over $7,500 US dollars.

God may see every sparrow fall, but He is evidently not watching the bank statements. $15,000 is a bargain for the church, which paid a reported A$100,000 to place full page notices in all major Australian newspapers yesterday. The announcement apologised to victims of priestly sex crimes, and introduced a catchy new corporate branding slogan - 'Towards Healing' - to refer to the process whereby victims can now beg for piddling amounts of hush money from the church.

Such publicly scripted contrition and genteel self-reproach now seem standard practice for all organisations suffering major PR crises - the last crowd to do so was disgraced accountants Arthur Andersen.

"With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion."
Professor Steven Weinberg
I know I've repeated this a lot, but when you think about the sex scandals now bedeviling the churches, it rings very, very true. Think, not of the actual pedophile priests, but of the many Bishops and Archbishops and Cardinals who have knowingly protected them, and are now concentrating their efforts on protecting themselves from the wrath of the public.

The defenders of these protectors all say: 'But this is unfair! He is a decent man, a good caring Christian, and he has done this and that for the poor, and blah blah', and it's true that they probably all started out like this. They are not guilty of physical abuse themselves, and child molestation was probably once as abhorrent to them as it is to us. How, why, did things get to this state?

"It is a man's own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways."

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
-Edmund Burke

"The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it."
-Albert Einstein

"Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph."
-Haile Sellassie

Normal people who encounter a distressed child crime victim will comfort and help the child, and call the police. Had they chosen other secular professions, our men of the cloth would no doubt have done the same. Instead, they did worse then nothing - they compounded the crimes. By refusing to remove practising perverts from the priesthood, they caused many more crimes.

Over the past decades these esteemed Bishops, Archbishops and Cardinals have ignored, dismissed, punished, denied, blamed, belittled, bribed, silenced, intimidated and threatened the victims of pedophile priests. They are accessories to crimes, before and after the fact. They are criminally negligent, morally bankrupt, and spiritually disconnected to the people and God they profess to serve.

''What struck me was that the cardinal and the other clergy kept talking about what to do about the priests, not the children. What had been done to the children just didn't enter into their equation. I felt they were there dealing with themselves, that they didn't realize what was happening. They were people who had no connection with children, people who didn't have families. They didn't have a clue.''

These men stand condemned.

What has made so many once good men do such evil? Not their faith, but their Church. As they say, What would Jesus do? Would he tend to and comfort the child, or would he think, 'Whoa! Bad public relations potential here, better keep a lid on this one. Better not be too kind, or the public liability insurers will be on my back.'

Sunday, June 09, 2002

The Sound of Nazis

Perhaps it's the fault of the Sound of Music, but modern culture finds the combination of nuns, priests and Nazis irresistable. Early last month, a NYT article (see post of May 06) accused the Vatican of Stalinist repression of dissent within the Church - "Like the Communist Party circa Leonid Brezhnev, the Vatican exists first and foremost to preserve its own power."

Today, the Vatican hit back. "A leading Latin American cardinal considered a possible successor to Pope John Paul II has attacked the American media for what he called Stalinist and Nazi tactics against the Catholic Church in the coverage of the sexual abuse scandal."

It would appear that, according to Godwin's Law ( "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." There is a tradition in many groups that, once this occurs, that thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress."), the Vatican has just lost the argument.

Still, let's be grateful to the good Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga; we needed a good laugh amidst the depressing sex crime articles. Some hilarious exerpts:

He accused Ted Turner, vice chairman of AOL Time Warner Inc. and founder of CNN, of being ''openly anti-Catholic,''

''Not to mention newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, which were protagonists of what I do not hesitate to define as a persecution against the church,'' said the cardinal, a Honduran who is often mentioned as a possible successor to the pope. ...

Recalling vicious Roman emperors and 20th century tyrants, Rodriguez Maradiaga accused the American media of acting with ''a fury which reminds me of the times of Diocletian and Nero and more recently, Stalin and Hitler.''

The cardinal said those priests and bishops who had committed grave errors had to be brought to justice by church tribunals and even civil courts.

''There should be no witch hunts around the church,'' he said. ...

...Cardinal [Bernard Law] had been ''questioned with methods that recall the dark days of Stalinist trials of churchmen of Eastern Europe.''

Rodriguez Maradiaga accused the American media of concentrating on the scandal in part to get back at the Catholic Church for its support for a Palestinian homeland...

Serial rape of children is regarded as, 'a grave error'? And nobody, of course, could ever accuse the Church of persecution or witch hunting. And I don't recall the last time I heard the Catholic establishment touting a Palestinian homeland, either. You can see thoughts of 'Zionist media conspiracies' swirling under the Cardinal's red cap. And you can stop laughing right now, because this guy is odds on to be the next Pope. If I believed, I'd say, God help us.

A Designer Universe

The debate over whether or not some form of God exists is so last century. Perhaps even the century before that. Those who think he does go and worship, those who think he doesn't go and do other things, and of those who aren't sure - the majority of them don't care either. Been there, and done that.

But at at any time there are always a few people going through their 'Does God exist?' phase, even if they're just first year philosophy students. With the theologians preoccupied with issues like zero tolerance of priestly sex crimes, where do you go these days, for a good old fashioned dose of the 'argument from design' or some 'free will vs evil' angst?

Answer: to the theoretical physicists. In 1999, the American Association for the Advancement of Science instroduced a 'Program of Dialogue between Science and Religion' (your research dollars at work) and as part of it, Nobel Prize winning physicist and religious unenthusiast Steven Weinberg debated Sir John Polkinghorne.

John Polkinghorne worked for many years as a theoretical elementary particle physicist. From 1968 to 1979 he was Professor of Mathematical Physics in the University of Cambridge, before resigning to train for the ministry of the Church of England. We'll come back one day and give Father Polkinghorne equal time, but for now, here's the transcript of Professor Weinberg's talk. It's all here:
  • The benevolent designer: "You don't have to invoke a benevolent designer to explain why we are in one of the parts of the universe where life is possible: in all the other parts of the universe there is no one to raise the question."

  • Evil and Free Will - "I have seen ... scores of second and third cousins murdered in the Holocaust. Signs of a benevolent designer are pretty well hidden. ...The prevalence of evil and misery has always bothered those who believe in a benevolent and omnipotent God. Sometimes God is excused by pointing to the need for free will. ...It seems a bit unfair to my relatives to be murdered in order to provide an opportunity for free will for Germans ..."

  • The moral influence of religion - "It is certainly true that the campaign against slavery and the slave trade was greatly strengthened by devout Christians, including the Evangelical layman William Wilberforce in England and the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing in America. But Christianity, like other great world religions, lived comfortably with slavery for many centuries, and slavery was endorsed in the New Testament.

    So what was different for anti-slavery Christians like Wilberforce and Channing? There had been no discovery of new sacred scriptures, and neither Wilberforce nor Channing claimed to have received any supernatural revelations. Rather, the eighteenth century had seen a widespread increase in rationality and humanitarianism that led others—for instance, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan— also to oppose slavery, on grounds having nothing to do with religion. ... As far as I can tell, the moral tone of religion benefited more from the spirit of the times than the spirit of the times benefited from religion."

Read the whole thing. He concludes:

In an e-mail message from the American Association for the Advancement of Science I learned that the aim of this conference is to have a constructive dialogue between science and religion. I am all in favor of a dialogue between science and religion, but not a constructive dialogue. One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment.

Thursday, June 06, 2002

God and the new navel-gazing

In recent times, huge advances in quantum mechanics have been accompanied by much philosophical, mystical and metaphysical navel-gazing. The Tao of God and the New Dancing Wu Li Masters, that kind of thing. If you can wade through even some of it you'll conclude, to cut a long story short, that most physicists end up taking an each-way bet on the God-like issues.

Not Steven Weinberg. Considered by many to be today's foremost theoretical physicist, Steven Weinberg received the Nobel prize in 1979 for his contributions to 'the unification of the electromagnetic and weak interactions of subatomic particles.'

No supernatural claptrap for Professor Weinberg. From his 1994 book, Dreams of a Final Theory:

The insights of thousands of individual physicists have converged to a satisfying (though incomplete) common understanding of physical reality. In contrast, the statements about God or anything else that have been derived from religious revelation point in radically different directions.

An observation about "religious liberals":

At least the conservatives like the scientists tell you that they believe in what they believe because it is true, rather than because it makes them good or happy. Many religious liberals today seem to think that different people can believe in different mutually exclusive things without any of them being wrong, as long as their beliefs "work for them."

Steven Weinberg's best-known comment on religion came not from his books, but from a speech he gave in 1999, later transcribed as an article in the New York Review of Books - more on this next time. Here, he replies to his critics:

One frequent theme in other letters and articles reponding to this essay is anger at one thing I said: "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion."

Several correspondents called my attention to the fact that the worst evils of the twentieth century were caused by regimes that had rejected religion: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China, and Pol Pot's Cambodia. This list leaves out some pretty horrible regimes in this century that enjoyed support from religious leaders - the Czar's Russia, Franco's Spain, Horthy's Hungary, the Ustashe's Croatia, the Taliban's Afghanistan, the Ayatollah's Iran, and so on. Even Hitler had the benefit of the 1933 concordat with the Catholic Church.

But this is all off the point. Who would call Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot or their followers good men? In saying that it takes religion for good men to do evil I had in mind someone like Louis IX. By all accounts he was modest, generous, and concerned to an unusual degree with the welfare of the common people of France, but he was led by his religion to launch the war of aggression against Egypt that we know as the Sixth Crusade.

I never claimed that religion causes all the evil in the world, but I have learned that when you say anything controversial, you are likely to be blamed not so much for what you have said as for what people think that someone who has said what you said would also say. Still, it's better than finding that you have made no one angry.
Facing Up - Science and Its Cultural Adversaries Harvard University Press 2001

Some people can't even win graciously. Sneers the WSJ:

"America woke up Wednesday to one of its greatest soccer wins," the Associated Press reports from Suwon, South Korea. "The U.S. soccer team shocked heavily favored Portugal at the World Cup, earning a 3-2 victory and breaking a five-match Cup losing streak dating back to 1994."

This just goes to show what a lame sport soccer is. A victory over Portugal is a big deal? Portugal--a country that hasn't been a major power since the 16th century?
They really don't get it, do they? Yes, all of us third world countries humbly acknowledge that America is today the one and the only major power; even if it does leave them playing with themselves. But watch that cycle of history, and the rise and fall of empires... five centuries is a long, long time.

Facists 1, Democracy 0

Yesterday, June 4th, was the thirteenth anniversary of the Tianamen Square massacre.

In April 1989, students had begun a prolonged demonstration and sit-in in Tianamen Square after the unexpected death of progressive party secretary Hu Yaobang. Workers, intellectuals, and civil servants join the students to stage a hunger strike and demand democratic reform and an end to official corruption.

Mao Tse Tung had not been merely theorizing in his famous dictum, that 'all power comes from the barrel of a gun.' On May 19, martial law was proclaimed. On June 4 1989, on the command of Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping, 40,000 members of the 'People's Army' marched into Beijing, and crushed their own people.

What warped and evil 'leaders' were these, to order the murder of the bravest and brightest of their own future? Tanks crushed protestors sleeping in their tents. A BBC report said that, "In Tianamen, one hundred students linked arms and faced the tanks. They were shot down. Then another hundred linked arms, and they were shot down."

Is it prudent, to stand in front of a tank? To us now, perhaps not. China hand Harrison Salisbury, in his 'Tianamen Diary', observed at the time,

"I am amazed by the people. They don't seem to be frightened by the tanks or the firing. Almost as thought they couldn't conceive that the army has chosen them as its target."

The exact casualty count is unknown, but estimates range up to 4,000 dead. Nevertheless the Chinese Government denied the massacre, eventually allowing only that a few counter-revolutionary rebels had been killed when they attacked the loyal People's Liberation Army. The PLA, of course, were just carrying out orders.

The anniversary was entirely ignored by the media and why not, western countries are all making far too much money in and out of China to care. While you're waiting for democracy, why not have a Coke? In a lucky coincidence, June 4th was also the day of China's first FIFA World Cup appearance, thus distracting both China and the world from memory of the unfortunate incident. ABC radio reported that near Tianamen Square itself, large outdoor TVs had been set up and huge hordes of students had gathered to chant patriotically and cheer the People's Soccer Team.

One Beijing student interviewed about the events of 1989 said, 'I have already forgotten them.' He probably never even knew about them. China was beaten 2 - 0 by little Costa Rica, so there's some justice.

* * * * *

Americans en masse have been completely ignorant of the World Cup save for occasional bleatings about how unsophisticated and low tech soccer is (although, so is basketball). They were therefore not watching earlier this evening when the US team really fired and unexpectedly beat highly ranked Portugal, thus depriving themselves of one of life's rare and genuine pleasures.

This is when your national team is the rank underdog, but you watch the whole game anyway, bravely hopeful, and - they win! What do you bet, now they've had a scent of 'Win, Win, Win for America!", that there'll be a lot more American soccer fans tomorrow?

Being the underdog in any team sport, quite natural to us Australasians in all but a very few things, is of course massively culturally alien to Americans. When you think of it, Americans don't seriously play national team sports with anyone. American Football is called American football because nobody else plays it. Only Cuba and Japan play baseball, pale imitators. They probably play Canada at Ice Hockey, but that's about it. Basketball? They send that up-themselves prima donna multi-billionaire sponsor's Wet 'Dream Team' to each Olympics and are really pleased when they win! Duh...

You could argue, like Andrew Sullivan, that America's soccer isolationism is related to her cultural isolationalism. Even Rugby countries that do not play soccer very well, like Australia and New Zealand, watch the World Cup avidly. The actual game can be boring - no arguments there - but the internationalism of the competition is quite neat. Not the big multinational flag-waving, but the endless little things.

The Japanese team includes a naturalized Brazilian. The Polish team includes a naturalized Nigerian. The French team are largely north African. The African team members all play in the European leagues. Western spectators cheer Cameroon and Senegal. All the Asian teams have European coaches, so you hear it said of the Japanese, 'yes, they're playing a typically Dutch game there.' Is all this not honestly more interesting that a bunch of guys from the University of Texas playing gridiron in Texas?

Monday, June 03, 2002

Black Sheep

Far be it from me to bore everybody - including myself - with an article on the woeful state of Australian Soccer, but this one made a interesting observation about the Nigerian team:

... Nigeria, [Africa's] second-largest Catholic country, a divided nation locked in a violent cultural civil war between the Christian south and the Islamic north, a fact which ripples through the predominantly Christian national team, the Super Eagles, whose names - Celestine, Augustine, Pius, Benedict, Bartholomew, Isaac, Julius, Justice, Joseph, John - sound like a roll call of popes.

I checked the names on their website - they're for real. Unfortunately, the Super Eagles have drawn the difficult Group F, known as the Group of Death, and were beaten 1-0 last night by Argentina (the winning goal scored by a player named Gabriel).

According to the Catholic African World Network, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, has the largest Catholic population in Africa, some 25 million people. Nigeria has over 17 million Catholics, followed by Uganda (13 million), Tanzania (12 million), Kenya (9.5 million), and Mozambique (more than 7 million). In addition, Burundi, Rwanda, Ghana and Cameroon all contain sizable Catholic populations of at least 5 million. ...There are 2.3 million black Roman Catholics in the United States.

Some have even tipped Nigeria's Cardinal Francis Arinze as the next Pope. The Papacy is like the Miss World or Miss Universe contests - organizers have to always make sure that the third world believes it's in with a real chance. According to the article,

    "Arinze converted to Catholicism from traditional Animism at the age of nine."

Animism! From Animnism to being the Roman Catholic Pontiff - what a life journey that would be! God indeed moves in mysterious ways...

Sunday, June 02, 2002

Triple trouble

From O Ye of Much Faith! NYT (link requires registration)

The past eight months have not been easy for believers. Roman Catholics learned that some of the princes of their church protected priests who sexually abused children. Muslims have seen their scholars condemned and their scriptures deconstructed for signs that Islam encourages terrorism. Jews in Europe have suffered a wave of anti-Semitic attacks as world opinion hardened toward Israel.

This is a rare moment in history, like a planetary alignment: three world religions simultaneously racked by crisis.

The nature of the trouble for each is different, but adherents of all three feel suddenly embattled and isolated. Atheists say "I told you so" and even some people of faith are asking whether there isn't something in the nature of religion itself that ends in corruption. ...

Distinctive elements of all three religions have become a focus of criticism and a cause for humiliation, shame or defensiveness.

Revelations that Catholic cardinals, archbishops and bishops helped hide the abuses of pedophile priests and even moved them into new parishes have put a harsh spotlight on the faith's hierarchy and its celibate male priesthood — the very attributes that distinguish Catholicism from other Christian denominations.

For Muslims, the crisis is one of doctrine. The 19 Muslims who crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania on Sept. 11 set off the ideological equivalent of a house-to-house search for militants in Islamic schools, mosques and media. ...

For Jews, the anguish is over a central part of their identity: their state and homeland of Israel. ... Their crisis is not one of faith or doctrine, but of the viability of Israel — and this for a people who since the sixth century B.C. have been reciting the psalm, "If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither." ...

...Every year some Catholic bishops meet with Muslim leaders for an interfaith exchange. At this year's gathering, at the Brooklyn archdiocese in April, the Muslims commiserated with their Catholic counterparts, said Mr. Baig.

"We told them, now the whole press is attacking Catholicism. Right now you look at any priest, and the first thing that comes to mind is, is something wrong with him or not. And as Muslims, we feel the same way," Mr. Baig said. "People are staring at me and they are thinking I am some terrorist. We told them, we understand what you are going through."

...This confluence of crises is "highly unusual" but not without precedent, said Karen Armstrong, a scholar of Catholicism, Judaism and Islam, and author of "A History of God." But she had to reach a long way back — from 800 to 200 B.C., a period of tremendous violence and upheaval on many continents, including China, India and the Middle East.

In the midst of that ancient upheaval, she said, great spiritual thinkers forged the basic ideologies of most major religious traditions, from Confucianism and Taoism in China to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism in India, to monotheism in the Middle East. The German philosopher Karl Jespers named that era the Axial Age because it was the axis of religious development.

"Those times were extremely violent and disturbed, and this made people question everything from scratch," Ms. Armstrong said.

"We've been undergoing our own sort of axial age, economically and technologically," she said. "But we've not begun to meet this challenge in religious terms. We could use this suffering to create wonderful new religious systems, as the Buddha did, or we could retreat into the spiritual barbarism of hatred."

As Professor Marty pointed out, the average person relates to religion not as a source of strife, but as a quiet, healing force, personified by the pastor who reconciles a divorcing couple, or the chaplain who delivers last rites to the dying.

"We're seeing now that religion is not an innocent force in the world," he said, "but it shares the same problems as the rest of the world.

A tale of two Archbishops

Australia has its own local version of that combined news and freak show, 60 Minutes. Sydney Catholic Archbishop George Pell spent much of last week trying to get an injunction against local TV station Channel 9, in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent tonight's screening.

The story lambasted Archbishop Pell's handling of - what else - child sex abuse cases, alleging re-assignment of guilty priests, refusal to face damning facts, coverups, complicity, and hush money offers. In other words, just the usual everyday Catholic morality in action, and small beer compared to the scandals rocking many US parishes.

Archbishop Pell, long accustomed to sharing the spotlight with gay Catholic publicity-seekers, is media-savvy and has come out fighting with statuary declarations and all those holy weapons. On 60 minutes he kept calm amidst the melodrama, said sympathetic things about the victims, acknowledged the scale of the problem, stonewalled only when strictly necessary, and I'm sure his handlers would have told him that he performed ok. He'll survive.

In the run up to the story last week, a couple of commentators mentioned that Archbishop Pell was at least handling the sexual abuse issues better than did recently one of his Anglican counterparts, former Archbishop Peter Hollingworth. Former, because he is now Australia's Governor General. Australia is still a monarchy, and the GG is the Queen's representative in Australia, a largely ceremonial if hugely prestigious position.

We have had Governors General who have ranged from being atheists to privately extremely devout, but the appointment of Hollingworth, then Archbishop of Brisbane and a card-carrying clergyman, raised some protests about separation of church and state, etc. Such fears were soon realized. When stories emerged earlier this year about the laxity of the Brisbane diocese in acting on numerous child abuse complaints within churches and Catholic schools, Australia was treated to the unedifying spectacle of its Governor General directing the considerable powers of his office to protect the Anglican Church.

And he still botched it. Reportedly a personally decent man, but a man of that older generation that 'just doesn't get it' on gender and sexual matters, Dr Hollingworth commandeered an entire TV program to respond to the accusations. He put his genteel suburban family life on display, trotted out his shining and devoted wife and daughters - an advantage not available to his Catholic counterparts - lamented how difficult all the attention was to his family - and then proceeded to put one foot firmly in his mouth, by blaming a 14 year old victim for her own abuse.

The victim fought back, even releasing a photograph of herself at 14 that showed a plain and dumpy schoolgirl, hardly a Lolita. Victim's groups, women's groups, Republicans, and a lot of ordinary Australians excoriated the Governor General, who subsequently made some mealy-mouthed and unconvincing apology. The Prime Minister was pressured to ask the GG to resign, and children's charities including Barnados embarrassingly dumped the GG as their official patron. The fuss eventually blew over, but with considerable damage to Hollingworth personally. Since then he has laid low and we have heard nothing from him for months. But I bet he was watching Channel 9 with much, much interest tonight.

Unamerican Football

'David and Goliath' has been trotted out everywhere to describe the Soccer World Cup victory of Senegal over World Champion France, its former colonial master. Senegal is a democratic republic of ten million people, 92% Muslim, on the westernmost country on the African continent. If 'war is God's way of teaching geography to Americans', then soccer is His way of teaching the rest of us.

It's a free extra that such a heartwarming victory of the underdog should be at the expense of France, the most virulent anti-Muslim anti-African-immigrant nation in Europe. While some may point out that,

"The answer to the apparent success of the anti-immigrant National Front in France, for example, is to point to the national fervour for a team many of whose best players are immigrants or the sons of immigrants."

one suspects that this point will be lost on the French ultra-right. Bigotry has the unique ability to adapt itself to the facts, and is quite comfortable with the view that a few ethnic African champion soccer players are OK but the rest of the dirty bastards should go back to where they came from. France was. after all, recently noted by the Independent as being able to 'simultaneously support both large anti-Muslim and large anti-Semitic movements.'

A few commentators have also gone the hackneyed path of describing soccer, and the World Cup fervour, as a religion. Hardly, but it's certainly the opiate of the masses at the moment.

* * * * *

It's probably being New Zealand born that does it, but I find soccer boring to watch. Dreary 0-0 draws and even sillier penalty shootouts - no thanks. Australia, where I am now, can't even make it into the Soccer World Cup at all - despite huge popularity at school level, and the consistent emergence of individual champion soccer players who promptly disappear to play overseas, the failure of Australian soccer administration has left these two phenomena quite unrelated. Australia and New Zealand are among the world's few countries where, when you say 'football', you are not talking about soccer. In New Zealand, football is Rugby Union. In Australia, football is Rugby League, Rugby Union, or AFL/Aussie Rules.

Another such country, of course, is the US. US sports writer Allen Barra has weighed in about soccer, Ugly American style:

Yes, OK, soccer is the most "popular" game in the world. And rice is the most "popular" food in the world. So what? Maybe other countries can't afford football, basketball and baseball leagues: Maybe if they could afford these other sports, they'd enjoy them even more.

It's no mystery why soccer is popular worldwide: It's the only sport where all nations can compete. It's the only sport where, in theory at least, Cameroon has a chance at beating Russia. This is, of course, because, played at a high level at least, soccer talent does not vary widely. It's the reason so many parents want their kids to play it, because they can have a modicum of athletic ability and still look good in a game. What the hell, it's the reason I liked playing soccer so much. I wasn't tall enough for basketball nor strong or fast enough for football and I didn't have the arm or hand-eye coordination for baseball. But I could run around on a soccer field all afternoon and walk off feeling good because my team only lost 2-0. (I would never admit to myself that 2-0 in soccer was like 37-0 in football.)

The truth is I do feel a little guilty about not reading or writing more about World Cup soccer. It's like that edifying but boring article in the New York Review of Books that you feel guilty for not having tackled. To be churlish about soccer is to indicate that you're not a good European or a good world citizen, or something like that. Instead of being self-centered Americans who only care about whether Roger Clemens is going to win his 300th game or whether the New Jersey Nets can possibly beat the L.A. Lakers, we're supposed to show some higher consciousness and root for Kenya against Germany.

All I can say is, that the many Sengalese kids who are going to grab an old ball and rush out to the nearest bit of paddock tomorrow are doing themselves a lot more good than their overprivileged American counterparts. American football, basketball and baseball leagues notwithstanding, some estimates say up to thirty percent of American children are sedentary and obese.

And don't watch soccer if you don't want to - I don't either - but let's not sneer at its egalitarianism or its internationalism.

The simplicity of it explains much of the extent of its appeal - the skills and (lack of) equipment required mean that the world's greatest players are as likely to emerge from a South America favela or an African shanty town as from the suburbs of London E4.

As a result, while success in the Olympic Games reflects the wealth of nations, football is open to the poorest countries on equal terms

No, not every country can afford a pro football league where players, contracted for millions and commercially sponsored for millions more, deck themselves out in helmets and ridiculous shoulder padding Judge Dredd-style to play some over-stylized game that stops every two yards. But these days, the world needs all the cheap and easy nation bonding that it can get, and you can do that just with a cheap ball and a patch of grass. In recent years there've been soccer games between Timorese and Australian soldiers, post-Taliban Afghans and UN peacekeepers, and Afghani asylum seekers and Australian provincial teams

The US, of course, is the country that trumpets 'World Series Baseball' - a competition entirely between US teams, of a game only seriously played in the US! (Actually the Japanese play pro baseball too, but you can bet that doesn't interest the Americans.)

Friday, May 31, 2002

The Men Who Knew Infinity - Part 2

(All excerpts from Robert Kanigel's fascinating 1991 book, The Man Who Knew Infinity - A Life of the Genius Ramanujan)

Srinivasa Ramanujan

Srinivasa Ramanujan was raised in Kumbakonam, a provincial town in Southern India. His mathematical talent was evident from childhood. As a member of the privileged Brahmin caste, he had the leisure, as a young man, to devote himself to whatever pure mathematics texts made their way to his isolated hometown.

So engrossed was Ramanujan in number theory that he neglected all other topics, thus failing to qualify for university entrance. He studied on, alone and self-taught. Without access to much mathematical literature, he independently re-discovered many difficult areas of number theory which, unbeknownst to him, had been discovered already.

Ramanujan was a devout Hindu, who grew up praying to stone deities; who for most of his life he took counsel from a family goddess, the goddess Namagiri of Namakkal, declaring it was she to whom his mathematical insights were owed.

After some local recognition and publication in Indian mathematical papers, Ramanujan sent samples of his theorems to four prominent English mathematicians. One failed to understand them. The next two ignored him - who was some obscure Indian clerk, to importune the cream of English academia? His fourth letter, in 1913, was to G H Hardy. Hardy did not ignore him.

Ramanujan was, if nothing else, a living, breathing reproach to the tripos system Hardy despised. Sheer intuitive brilliance coupled to long, hard hours on the slate made up for most of his educational lacking, and he was so devoted to mathematics he couldn't be bothered to study the other subjects he needed to earn a college degree. This 'poor and solitary Hindu pitting his brains against the accumulated wisdom of Eureoris' as Hardy called him, had rediscovered a century of mathematics and made new discoveries that would captivate mathematics for the next century. Is it any wonder Hardy was beguiled?

At the height of his own considerable reputation, Hardy recognized Ramanujan's gifts, brought him to England, schooled him in the mathematics he had missed, and brought him to the attention of an appreciative world.

"Srinivasa Ramanujan was a mathematician so great his name transcends jealousies, the one superlatively great mathematician whom India has produced in the last thousand years."

His leaps of intuition confound mathematicians even today, seven decades after his death. ..the brilliant, self-taught Indian mathematician whose work contains some of the most beautiful ideas in the history of science. His legacy has endured. His twenty-one major mathematical papers are still being plumbed for their secrets, and many of his ideas are used today in cosmology and computer science. His theorems are being applied in areas - polymer chemistry, computers, cancer research - scarcely imaginable during his lifetime.

Two more different mathematicians could scarcely be imagined. To Hardy, cold and clinical proof was the way to knowledge. For Ramanujan, mysticism and intuition ruled his work, and proof of his theorems was left to others - needless to say, they always were proved true. Their collaboration and friendship was nevertheless a "clash of cultures - Kumbakonam in Southern India vs Cambridge - between the pristine proofs of the Western mathematical tradition and the mysterious powers of intuition with which Ramanujan dazzled East and West alike."

In the west, all through the centuries, artists have sought to give expression to religious feeling, creating Bach fugues and Gothic cathedrals in thanks and tribute to their Gods. In South India today, such religious feeling hangs heavy in the air, and to discern a spiritual resonance in Ramanujan's mathematics seems more natural by far than it does in the secular West.

In the west, debate existed as to whether mathematical reality was made by mathematicians or, existing independently, was merely discovered by them. Ramanujan was in the latter group - for him, numbers and their mathematical relationships fairly threw off clues as to how the universe fit together. Each new theorem was one more piece of the Infinite unfathomed.

In how the mystical streak in Ramanujan sat side by side, apparently at perfect ease, with raw mathematical ability may testify to a peculiar flexibility of mind, a special receptivity to loose conceptual linkages and tenuous associations.

It was just Ramanujan's luck, then, to be thrown in with Hardy, whose insistence on rigor had sent him off almost single-handedly to reform English mathematics and to write his classic text on pure mathematics, who had told Bertrand Russell two years before that he would be happy to prove, really prove, anything: 'If I could prove by logic that you were going to die in 5 minutes, I should be sorry you were going to die, but my sorrow would be very much mitigated by pleasure in the proof."

Ramanujan, Intuition Incarnate, had run smack into Hardy, the Apostle of Proof.

Even among mathematicians not religiously minded, one finds evidence of at least respectful allusion to the dark terrain between faith and reason. G H Hardy, though, did not admit to such ambivalence - for him the whole spiritual world was just so much bunkum. He KNEW - this was HIS faith - that wherever Ramanujan's genus came from, there was something straightforward to explain it. Ramanujan's mathematics, he said, was the product of a reasoned working of a reasoning mind, and nothing more needed to be said.

Someone would later observe that 'Hardy's deep reverence for mathematics and for all things of the mind was precisely of the same kind as compels other people to the worship of God - the only enigma about Hardy was that this never seemed to occur to him.' And at least for public consumption, it never did. Had Ramanujan scoured the British Isles, he could have found no-one less sympathetic to his spiritual side, no one who, in this realm, could appreciate him less.

Faced with a man once described as 'an atheist evangelist', Ramanujan simply never revealed to him the richness and extent of his inner spiritual life.

Ramanujan's study at Cambridge and work with Hardy and other mathematicians resulted in a number of important publications and great honors - in 1918, he was elected to the Royal Society of London, and a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge. But his health was always delicate, and exacerbated by the English climate and the strictness of his diet. In 1920, after returning to India, he died of tuberculosis. He was only in his early thirties.

What might have been, had he lived longer?

G H Hardy died in 1947. As an old man, he still spoke glowingly of his time and friendship with Ramanujan. Hardy was a lifelong and public atheist. Yet when he died, one mourner spoke of his,

'profound conviction that the truths of mathematics described a bright and clear universe, exquisite and beautiful in its structure, in comparison with which the physical world was turbid and confused. It was this that made his friends... think that in his attitude to mathematics there was something which, being essentially spiritual, was near to religion."

The same, but more emphatically, goes for Ramanujan, who all his life believed in the Hindu gods and made the landscape of the Infinite, in realms both material and spiritual, his home. "An equation for me has no meaning', he once said, 'unless it expresses a thought of God.'

Wednesday, May 29, 2002

The Men Who Knew Infinity - Part 1

Science vs. Religion is hackneyed and done to death - creationism, evolution, God and subatomic physics, blah blah. Far more interesting are relationships between religion and mathematics, (and I don't mean these boggy Randian/Objectivist pseudo-mathematical arguments against the existence of God, either).

Bertrand Russell is probably the best known atheist mathematician. and even the people who email me to tell me that "I can logically disprove 'Why I Am Not A Christian' in my sleep, so there," cannot refute his mathematical ability. Entering the world mecca of mathematics - Trinity College, Cambridge University - in 1893, Russell, in the gruelling Mathematical Tripos (entrance test), qualified as the quaintly titled, 'Seventh Wrangler'.

The Mathematical Tripos was considered the most difficult mathematics test ever known. The ranks into which the successful candidates in the mathematical tripos were divided were called respectively wranglers, (after the ability to wrangle over points of logic), senior and junior optimes. The top student was designated 'Senior Wrangler' - the blue ribbon of Cambridge scholarship. To get among the top ten Wranglers was a noteworthy achievement. The student at the bottom of the examination list received a wooden spoon.

But the most compelling interweaving of mathematical ability and religious orientation involves not Russell, but two other Trinity College mathematicians of a few years later. The first was G.H. Hardy.

G.H. Hardy

Godfrey Harold Hardy entered Trinity College as 'Fourth Wrangler' in 1898. For many years he was England's premier mathematician, inspiring an entire school of mathematics. He gained and retains to this day world fame in the area of pure mathematics known as number theory.

Number theory seeks out the properties of, and patterns among numbers - remember prime numbers, Fibonacci numbers, Benoulli numbers? Don't run away scared - Hardy once said, "...most people are so frightened of the name of mathematics that they are ready, quite unaffectedly, to exaggerate their own mathematical stupidity."

Hardy was a confirmed atheist (why do we always say confirmed atheists?) since childhood, contemptuous of religion, as was his older sister. This was apparently a reaction to their mother's zealotry. His parents were devout worshippers, and the young Hardy, forced to attend church, would seek the prime factors of the hymn numbers.

He always played an amusing game of trying to fool God (which is also rather strange since he claimed all his life not to believe in God). For example, during a trip to Denmark he sent back a postcard claiming that he had proved the Riemann hypothesis. He reasoned that God would not allow the boat to sink on the return journey and give him the same fame that Fermat had achieved with his "last theorem".

Another example of his trying to fool God was when he went to cricket matches he would take what he called his "anti-God battery". This consisted of thick sweaters, an umbrella, mathematical papers to referee, student examination scripts etc. His theory was that God would think that he expected rain to come so that he could then get on with his work. Since Hardy thought that God would then have the sun shine all day to spite him, he would be able to enjoy the cricket in perfect sunshine.

Hardy thought incisively, wrote and spoke beautifully, and passed judgemental and acerbic opinions on everything. His eccentricity was all the more striking for the intellect behind it, although on a trip to America he impressed mathematician Alan Turing, himself homosexual, as, 'just another English intellectual homosexual atheist'.

Hardy was divinely quotable. From his 1940 book, A Mathematician's Apology:

"There is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds."

"A science is said to be useful of its development tends to accentuate the existing inequalities in the distribution of wealth, or more directly promotes the destruction of human life."

Like all good English intellectual homosexual atheists, Hardy was left of center. At one time a Trade Union representative, he objected to the lunacy of both world wars.

All his life, has was sympathetic to the underdog. Mary Cartwright ... recalled that, as a woman mathematician, "I was a depressed class' - and so enjoyed Hardy's favour. C P Snow wrote that Hardy prefrerred the downtrodden of all types "to the people whom he called the large bottommed: the desc was more psychological than physical... [They] were the confident, booming, imperialist, bourgeois English. The designation included most bishops, headmasters, judges. and politicians."
The Man Who Knew Infinity - Robert Kanigel

The 'Large Bottomed' - what a divine phrase. Don't some people come immediately to mind!

It might seem obvious, then, to regard the lack of belief in God shown by Bertrand Russell and GH Hardy as an understandable side-effect of the logical analysis skills required by mathematics, a subject founded on formal proofs. No so, and not so simple - mathematics has many faces. And in 1913, Hardy received a letter - from a very different kind of mathematician indeed.

To be continued ...

Tuesday, May 28, 2002


Not everyone is a Dalai Lama convert.

"Curious, even disturbing, is the way so many non-Buddhist Australians blur the lines between respect, reverence and worship in their attitudes toward the Dalai Lama. Critical reflection on the man and his message hardly seems to figure in their estimation of him. ...

The Dalai Lama seeks to excite the "innate spiritual nature" of people so that they might choose kindness and affection in their relations to others rather than anger, hatred or the temptation to exploit.

Christian church leaders promote the same message, but when they do they tend to be ignored or scorned, whereas the Dalai Lama is regarded as a welcome breath of fresh air.

This is partly because his approach is intuitive rather than discursive, inclusive rather than exclusive, gently encouraging rather than reproachful or overly instructive. With the Dalai Lama one seems to be getting the essence of religious insight without the froth and bubble of dogma and doctrine or the hard and fast rules of moral behaviour.

The trouble is that when religion is leeched in this fashion of too much content, all that is left is platitudes - or worse, banalities. ...

In fact many of the Dalai Lama's comments on international problems and their solutions - the sort of complex issues on which he is prepared to make generalised statements - tend towards the naivety of a primary school pupil at an end-of-year speech night. When children talk about the need for more caring and sharing in the world, adults smile knowingly - which is to say that we, unlike they, appreciate life's complexities. Ironically, when the Dalai Lama says the same thing, we call it wisdom and applaud."

I've said similar things, but I do detect sour grapes in this article. To be the religious affairs columnist for Sydney's major paper you'd need some formal theological background, which in these parts means Christian, and I think the author's preferences are showing.

When did you last hear anything other than banalities from any organised religion? Which faith ever does reflect critically on its leader and his message? (OK, some Catholics are at the moment, but that's due to very extenuating circumstances.)

Inclusive, non-reproachful, free of dogma. How many organized religions does this bring to mind? If that's what the people want, then its a free market.

* * * * *

One advantage of speaking in banalities is that you never put your foot in your mouth. George W. Bush, the most insular of recent Presidents, has just finished a trip to the former infidel land of the former Soviet Union, and is now in Berlin. Here's an excerpt from Maureen Dowd's trip report:

In Berlin, Mr. Bush's first stop on a trip full of fabulous cities he had never visited, he was asked by a snippy local peacenik reporter to "try to explain to the German people what your goals are when it comes to Iraq." The president huffed: "He's a dictator who gassed his own people."

It had to be the most powerful statement in postwar Germany, but the president seemed oblivious to its power. He had used the line before, but never in a country that had actually had a dictator who gassed his own people. Afterward, he told German lawmakers that the terrorists were like those who had "killed in the name of racial purity. . . . We are defending civilization itself."

* * * * *

Before September 11, it was generally accepted by most people outside the US that most ordinary folk within the US, as well as its President, had very little notion that other countries even existed.
"War is God's way of teaching Americans geography," as the old saying went.

But there's always been one group reaching out to countries and other faiths, and that's the scarily flaky US Christian Right. We know that the hard-line evangelists are supporting Israel, the Holy Land and site of the upcoming rapture and armageddon (see last Friday's post). But another rightest group, the white supremacists - and white supremacists are Christians, thank you, no iffy beliefs here - are aligning themselves with the Islamofacists, in a 'Nazi-Muslim Axis'. Banalities about being nice to each other never looked so good.

"What’s going on here? For decades, American extremists have lumped Arabs in with dark-skinned "mud people." In Europe, neo-Nazis have been implicated in countless xenophobic attacks on Arabs, Turks and other Muslims.

The peculiar bond between white nationalist groups and certain Muslim extremists derives in part from a shared set of enemies: Jews, the United States, race-mixing, ethnic diversity. It is also very much a function of the shared belief that they must shield their own peoples from the corrupting influence of foreign cultures. Both sets of groups also have a penchant for far-flung conspiracy theories that caricature Jewish power. ... the late 1930s The Grand Mufti, the preeminent religious figure among Palestinian Muslims, was the most notable Arab leader to seek an alliance with Nazi Germany.

Although he loathed Arabs (he once described them as "lacquered half- apes who ought to be whipped"), Hitler understood that he and the Mufti shared the same rivals - the British, the Jews and the Communists. They met in Berlin, where the Mufti lived in exile during the war. The Mufti agreed to help organise a special Muslim division of the Waffen SS. Powerful radio transmitters were put at the Mufti’s disposal so that his pro-Axis propaganda could be heard throughout the Arab world."

Read about it here, in the irresistably titled 'The Swastika and the Crescent'.

Monday, May 27, 2002

Out to pasture

Two old war-horses of the faith both returned home today, after hard campaigns in infidel lands.

The Dalai Lama left Sydney this morning, ending his 10 day tour of Australia. I don't know about Sydney but in Melbourne he reportedly stayed at the 5-star Marriott - it would appear he's no ascetic. The SMH reports:
"The immediate appeal of the Tibetan leader's uncomplicated recipe for happiness and inner peace says much about a Western culture which believes itself to be spiritually starved.

Yet His Holiness's core message - at least when tailored to his mass- market Western audiences - is decidedly secular, with truisms of tolerance, knowledge and compassion as its staple tenets."

Sounds lovely, sunshine, light and lotus blossoms all around. Tolerance, knowledge, and compassion! Am I the only person to see an odd irony in people requiring a major religious figure to point out to them the obvious - and treating it as a profound spiritual insight when he does?

The arrogant and ignorant notion that virtue is the exclusive preserve of the religious is as old as formal religion itself. This attitude seems to be lessening among the severely devout, so it is a pity indeed when the non-devout take it up. People know, themselves, what's needed and what's good to do. They shouldn't be intellectually cowed into requiring it to be validated by a spiritual leader, even one as seemingly benign as the Dalai Lama.

Bertrand Russell, in his 1927 essay, Why I am not A Christian, stated:

"A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage,"
beating the Dalai Lama to that particular insight by seventy-five years.

Russell was a rationalist and an atheist, yet had a fine grasp of morality:

"The first and greatest change that is required is to establish a morality of initiative, not a morality of submission, a morality of hope rather then fear, of things to be done rather than things to be left undone. It is not the whole duty of man to slip through the world so as to escape the wrath of God. The world is our world, and it rests with us to make it a heaven or a hell." 1916

"Moral codes which are irrational, and have no basis except in superstition, cannot long survive the habit of disinterested thinking. But if a moral code seems to promote human well being in this terrestial existance, it has no need of supernatural sanctions. Kindliness and intelligence are the chief sources of useful behaviour, and neither ir promoted by causing people to believe, against all reason, in a capricious and vindictive deity." 1944

"More and more people are becoming unable to accept traditional beliefs. If they think that, apart from these beliefs, there is no reason for kindly behaviour, the results may be needlessly unfortunate. This is why it is important to show no supernatural reasons are needed to make men kind and to prove that only through kindness can the human race achieve happiness." 1947

"Kindliness and tolerance only prevail in proportion as dogmatic belief decays." 1953

* * * * *

Pope John Paul has returned to the Vatican from a trip to several Eastern Orthodox countries. He is so ill it is distressing to see him, immobile and barely animate, like those statues of Fatima that get carted around everywhere.

But, Christ suffered, and the spirit is willing even if the flesh is weak, and the recent journey was motivated entirely by John Paul himself. As the NYT commented, (link requires registration), "These days, the pope is focused on the kinds of special projects embraced by former presidents or honorary chairmen of the board."

The elderly become far-sighted, and, ignoring the stinking mess in his own back yard, the Pope went forth to mend feelings, after the Great Schism in the mid-eleventh century between Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Churchs.

Unfortunately, this drive was not met by equal enthusiam from the Eastern Orthodox heirarchy. Who can really blame them? If you were a spiritual leader right now, would you want to unite your faith with a bunch of reactionary sexual disfunctionaries?

"Patriarch Maxim, leader of the Orthodox church in Bulgaria, echoing his counterparts in Georgia and Ukraine, did not bend to the pope's overtures. Maxim, 87, stiffly assured the pope that unity would come as soon as Christian truth was accepted by all as "preserved and proclaimed by the Orthodox Church."

Orthodox leaders did not raise the pedophilia scandals with the pope, but they, too, had read the newspapers. "We discussed it in our seminaries," Archimandrite Sioniy, rector of the Orthodox seminary in Sofia, said as he stood in the monastery awaiting the pope. "If Catholic priests could marry and have families, as we do, then perhaps the problem would not be so great.""

* * * * *

One danger of being 'spiritually starved' is that any old faith might rush in to fill the vacuum - even one profoundly at odds with your own self-worth. For example, women in the Sydney Anglican diocese have hit the stained glass ceiling. "Sydney is one of only a handful of Anglican dioceses in the country that ban the ordination of women as priests, following the general synod vote 10 years ago allowing the practice."

The Newcastle Anglican diocese, some mere 100 miles north of Sydney, does allows women priests. Talk about a Great Schism - what changes, when you drive across that cartographical boundary? Surely, ordination of women is either a theological abomination, or it isn't. You'd think that'd be fairly clear cut within the same church. Perhaps the Catholic way is not so bad - you only have one guy making the rules.

Sunday, May 26, 2002

Versions of Hell

    "For centuries, [suicide] would have been considered a mortal sin by Catholics. Early on, many believed suicide was a one-way ticket to Dante's version of hell, a sizzling sulfur pit where those who killed themselves writhed alongside other sinners in never-ending agony. For hundreds of years, funeral Masses and burials on consecrated ground were prohibited because of this.

    "But in 1983, church officials rewrote canon law, opening a door to forgiveness, both from God and the church."

    " least 16 Catholic priests, 12 in the United States, have killed themselves since 1986 amid allegations of child sexual abuse."

Perhaps they should have kept the old rules?

The suicide rate for victims of priestly abuse is unknown.

With more Catholic priest sex scandals breaking every week, a story needs an edge to stand out from the pack. Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland had a long-term consensual homosexual relationship with another adult, which would barely raise eyebrows in the church today, O Tempora, O Mores! He then made his big blunder, which was to pay his ex-paramour nearly half a million to keep quiet, out of, presumably, the poor box. The Archbishop singularly failed to get value for the Church's money, since the entire world is now gaping at this sordid episode.

What happened to the good old days, when you paid people hush money and they stayed hushed? The Church has the right to sue the Archbishop's ex-lover for breach of his confidentiality contract, but do they have the stomach for it?

With Archbishops, big money, and gay sex already in the plot, one would think it totally unnecessary and gratuitous to additionally introduce the Nazis into this story, but somebody has. The Cold War is over, but the Nazis live on - the villians we have to have - still popping up in our commentaries nearly 60 years after VE day.

    "Always remember Godwin's Law: In any argument about serious matters in controversy, someone will eventually invoke the name of Hitler or the Nazis. At this point, all useful content has gone out of the discussion and you might as well drop the subject. Godwin's law was invented to describe interactions on the Internet, but I've noticed it also holds true in real life."

More from our first story.
    "How can a priest be both an abuser and a nurturer? Psychologists call these seemingly dual personalities "splitting," according to A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former Benedictine monk who has studied sexuality and priests for decades.

    "Sipe and others say that priests maintain their double lives much as German doctors accused of experimenting on humans during World War II.

    "Researchers discovered that the doctors developed a coping mechanism, flipping their personalities on and off like a light switch. At work, they were mad scientists. At home, they were doting fathers. There was no crossover.

    "Sipe said he often sees the same "splitting" among priests who abuse children. They can be among the most dedicated servants to God, he said. But when they choose to flip the switch, they are predators, manipulating children only to fulfill their sexual desires."

How gloomy all this...imagine being Catholic all the time. Unless there's any irresistable news, I think we need a Catholic-free week. I have some interesting stuff about Religion and Mathematics. Coming soon.

A Wonderful Life

We learnt yesterday that, "Dispensationalism is a predominant belief among fundamentalists". Creationism, of course, is the predominant belief among Christian fundamentalists, and one person uniquely qualified to comment on Creationism was the late Professor Stephen Jay Gould, reknown palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist. Professor Gould died last week, after battling lung cancer for many years.

    "Although always an adversary of Creationism, in later life he grew tired of the war of intellectual extermination being fought by extremists on both sides of the religion/science divide, and wisely urged forbearance."
From an otherwise rather catty obituary in the right-wing National Review Online.

Here's Professor Gould's political opinion of creationism, taken from an interview in 1996.

    "Creationism is still with us. Do you think it's a permanent feature of the landscape?

    "As long as there are millions of people who believe it and have lots of money. What's permanent, in geological terms? But as long as our society is organized this way, yeah, I think it is. Because it's not an intellectual issue. It's an interesting phenomenon of American socio- cultural history. As long as you have this enormous pluralism within Protestantism, as long as some of our traditional divisions like rich and poor, north and south, and rural and urban persist, you're going to get this hard-line fundamentalism. And it's never going to be majoritarian, though it might be locally, but it's gonna be at least locally potent."

"A Harvard professor since the age of 26, Gould attacked that classic image of the "march of evolution". His version of evolution was messier. It had jerks and spasms, went backward and forward, and sometimes fell over sideways.

In 1972, he and colleague Niles Eldredge offered a modification of traditional Darwinian theory, something they called "punctuated equilibria". The evolution of species wasn't always smooth and steady, they argued, but could occur in bursts shaped by historical chance.

Some people see the world as divinely created, and others perceive it as the result of an orderly natural process. But for Gould, this was a planet of accidents, of lucky breaks, of biological lotteries.

If you started the whole process over from scratch, he argued, you would wind up with something totally different."
Reuters, 25 May 02

In other words, "We [humans] are here because we are here, not because we have to be here."

In his own words:

"Humans are not the end result of predictable evolutionary progress, but rather a fortuitous cosmic afterthought, a tiny little twig on the enormously arborescent bush of life, which if replanted from seed, would almost surely not grow this twig again."

In addition to butting heads with both Creationalists and traditional Darwinists, Professor Gould was for good measure also a rationalist, a Marxist, and very much an individualist.

    "Stephen Jay Gould, who died on Monday, belonged to no particular scientific sect and founded none. Almost all his battles were fought on his own. But the happy elegance of his style and the bewildering range of his interests allowed him to recruit the sympathies of every benevolent, well-read humanist to his various causes. No wonder he was hated so. He was the scientist for the rest of us.

    He gave as good as he got in his long feud with the "Darwinian fundamentalists," as he called his opponents. This term, an inspired piece of polemical mudslinging, showed that what his own invective lacked in quantity, it made up in quality, since one of the defining characteristics of the sociobiologists he was attacking was their rather Victorian atheism, and their conviction that the worst sort of human being in the world was a fundamentalist Christian.

    It's hard to think of any scientist who has managed to combine Gould's professional excellence -- for you do not get to be a senior professor at Harvard by being an industrious windbag -- with his gifts as a popularizer. ...

    Perhaps the person he most resembled in this was Bertrand Russell, who also spent his professional life on subjects of arcane difficulty, increasingly isolated from the activities of his peers, and who earned his living with high-class journalism and popular histories. Russell, who won an unlikely Nobel prize for literature, was the better stylist (and the bigger fool, as reading his essays on current affairs makes clear today). But both men managed to make hard thought look easy and fun."

Well-informed passion - we need more of it.